Family Difference

Story no. 16.


Bet you thought I was dead, didn’t you? How’d you think I was telling this story to you, exactly? Orks don’t come back as ghosts. If we leave unfinished business, it stays unfinished.

But I’ll admit that for a while I assumed I had to be dead. Everything was dark and I couldn’t really move my limbs. It did strike me as peculiar that if oblivion were all that awaited me after death I should be aware of it.

As time passed, I became increasingly uncomfortable. My head burned and there was a weight on my chest and my arms. The place where the Fey’s glaive had gone into me, just under my left shoulder blade and certainly puncturing a lung, hurt so much the pain had become an unfamiliar, bizarre sensation: like having surgery done with an icicle while I was flying through the air at top speed.

I was properly indignant when I woke up completely and realized I was in a bed. Orks don’t even sleep in beds. Sheets are nonsense. Mattresses are a haven for vermin. Pillows can be used to smother you in the night. What was even more aggravating was that this meant someone had seen me walk right into that Fey’s blade, and I doubted I could live that down in the centuries I had left.

I could smell cotton and hemp and wood and feel cloth rubbing against me. But my arms and legs had been immobilized somehow, and I found myself too weak to thrash.

The first time I woke completely it was to a wooden spoon a hairs’ breadth from my nose.

“Open up,” Lia said.

I started to tell her I didn’t want any damn food, and she shoved it into my mouth.

Chicken broth. My stomach wrapped itself around my backbone and snarled hysterically. Lia got another three spoonfuls in before I had the sense to talk through clenched teeth.

“How long have I been unconscious?”

“What?”

“I said – “ Another spoonful of broth hit my tongue and I sputtered.

“Almost two weeks,” she said calmly, setting the bowl on a low table next to the bed. “Apparently even an Ork has troubles bouncing back when a pulmonary artery gets severed.”

“I should be dead,” I grumbled.

“Aren’t you glad you’re not?” Lia said.

“No.” I tried to sit up.

“Don’t try to sit up!”

The warning was moot, as the pain of moving was so intense that I fell back gasping. “Why do I feel like I got kicked in the chest by a horse? The Fey only stabbed me in the back!

Lia pursed her lips and picked up the bowl and spoon again. “More soup.” It was not a request, and I weakly let my jaw fall open rather than fight her.

When the bowl was empty, she wiped it out with the corner of her apron and stood up. Facing the door, she informed it tartly, “Your heart stopped beating for a moment, and Soja punched you in the chest. I expect she broke your sternum.”

The wave of misery that had been threatening since the news of the child broke over me. “Is Soja here?”

“No, she’s left.”

Now that I was awake, I couldn’t sleep. Everything hurt. Even being disemboweled had not hurt this much. Soja must have gotten in a few more hits in after my heart had resumed beating. At least four of my ribs were broken. I couldn’t exactly blame her.

Lia restricted my diet to broth and, eventually, rinsed, boiled potatoes, with salt. “If you start puking now, you’ll undo all my stitchery,” she said tersely.

I didn’t particularly like to think of Elves reattaching my internal organs, so I let it lie.

The other three members of the Four at the Crossroads had gone.

“Couldn’t bear to stay in the same house as an Ork, eh?” I said.

“Don’t think so much of yourself,” Lia said, stabbing a gigantic needle into a boot heel. She brought all her mending into the room I was installed in, just off the kitchen. A fire was kept burning all day and night in the little hob, despite it being only mid-autumn. “Soja made them leave.”

“What? Why?”

She snorted and trimmed a bit of leather off the boot heel she was mending. “They – well – “

“Well, what?”

“They thought she should let you go.”

“Let me die, you mean? I guess they aren’t complete idiots.”

“It made Soja angry, so she made them leave.”

“Guess she thought better of that,” I muttered, looking at my claws. “Seeing as how she’s not here now.”

Lia didn’t have an answer for that. She fiddled with the oil lamp beside her, turning up the wick and then pulling it down. Her thread began tracing a floral pattern around the toe and the cuff.

“Where’s my sword?” I snapped.

“I hid it.”

What?”

“Soja told me to,” Lia said, squinting at the boot. The sun had set outside and a draft was beginning to creep in at the window. “She said you might try to leave before she got back if you could get hold of it.”

“She’s coming back,” I said stupidly.

“She’s coming back,” she repeated. The boots hit the workbasket with a sigh of exasperation. “There’s hardly enough light to do anything with these anymore.”

***

Elves can cover ground like no other living creature. They don’t run – exactly – and they don’t walk – exactly – but an Elf can outpace a deer on flat ground, a squirrel in the trees, or a wolf in the mountains. There are stories from the last age of the Witch-King of the Elves receiving word from his messenger ravens that an army of Men (a race of creatures I have never seen and do not particularly believe in) with war-horses had set down on the far eastern coast with the intent to claim whatever wasn’t nailed down. A full company of Elves had met them on the shore, when they had only just unloaded all their animals – a distance from the Northern Wood it would take an Ork a month to cover. And we are not bad runners.

What I am trying to say is that as one week passed into two, and two weeks passed into three, I became increasingly antsy about where Soja could have gone and why she wasn’t back yet. My ribs knit themselves back together, and the stitches in my arteries pulled less and less. Lia had cows for me to milk and butter for me to churn and pots of boiling soap for me to stir. She had me weave blankets from rags to cover the cows in the stable (and the occasional wounded deer or traveling unicorn.) She caught her rabbits that she let wander in the wood in the summer and put them in hutches that she stacked near the windows in the kitchen, in the room I slept in, upstairs in the loft.

Late in afternoons Lia often disappeared somewhere outside the farmstead. At first I used these opportunities to search the stables for my sword, overturning baskets and buckets, looking for trapdoors or hidden attics. Soja was right: I didn’t want to know what she still had to say to me. Or rather, I knew what she was going to say; I just didn’t want to hear it.

After the second week I realized that Lia had hidden my sword somewhere in the wood, and as I had no intention of seeing whether the Fey was still waiting for me outside the gate, I couldn’t go looking for it.

One of these evenings I waited for her just inside the clay-plastered wall. I had hooked one of the lanterns on the iron hook protruding from the gate, as the sun had set some hours before. The wood was dense with shadows. I wondered how long it would be before I walked it again, and how long before I touched the stone on the mountains again.

Lia, like most northern Elves, was pale enough to glow in the dark. I saw her scrawny form wending its way through the trees from two hundred yards away, but as she moved closer I realized she was with someone. At first I hoped for Soja, then cursed myself for it, then realized it was not even an Elf. It was a Fey with the head of a buck, as tall as Lia, his brown skin laced with green veins.

When they reached the edge of the trees I saw she had the Fey’s hand in hers, because she dropped it and bowed deeply to him. He returned the gesture and vanished.

Lia started when she saw me standing by the gate. She took the lantern from its hook and walked past me. “Do you need something?”

“I wanted to – ah – warn you, before you got inside. I may have eaten one of your rabbits.” I looked back into the wood. “Was that your love?”

She looked over her shoulder too. “Which rabbit was it?”

“It was brown.”

“Did you upset the other rabbits? They’re very sensitive.”

“It got out and I caught in the yard and, erm, I had eaten it before I quite realized.”

“Soja told me I’d have to watch out for you with my chickens,” Lia said, as we entered the house.

“I haven’t eaten a single chicken that you didn’t serve to me,” I said, feeling irritated.

“No, you haven’t.” She set the lantern on the kitchen table and blew it out. The coals on the hearth were the only remaining source of light in the room. “About the other – “

“What other?”

“The question you asked.”

“Ah.”

“I am perhaps more sympathetic to you and Soja than some might be.”

“Ah.”

***

Soja returned with the boy three weeks and two days after I woke up. I say boy, but he had grown himself a beard and mustaches, big fluffy red ones, though he hadn’t braided them in the customary manner of Elves.

“You look like an ass,” I said disagreeably after staring at the young fellow yanking off his boots for a good five minutes.

He glanced up at me. Soja’s eyes. “This is him? Mother, is this him?” he said.

She finished pulling off her gloves and laid them neatly on a shelf by the door. The winter had come on completely in the last week, with swirling piles of snow and itching cold. “This is him. Galin, Baikakur. Baikakur, Galin.”

“Bhaikhacurh,” I said.

“Bhaikhacur,” the boy repeated.

“Close,” I said, feeling oddly sorrowful.

“The Southern Elves have more sounds in their language,” he commented. He was wearing striped socks underneath the boots.

Lia had gone out into the wood that morning. She had left a note with the number and type of foods I was allowed to eat from the pantry. I got out eggs and onions and dried mushrooms and started making a sort of scramble.

Galin watched me. An Orkin nose looks very oddly in the middle of an Elfin face. “I thought Orks ate their food raw.”

“I do. Mostly. This isn’t for me.”

We ate in silence for a few minutes. Galin drank cream straight from the pitcher and had to wipe it out of his mustache. “How did you and Mother meet?”

I thought of the rabbits I’d killed and the dove I’d eaten off the chimney. I thought of the cold stone of the mountain and hiding in the shadows of an oak from a Fey lord whose name I couldn’t remember.

“We met in the wood,” Soja said.

“This was a terrible idea,” I snapped. “Soja, why’d you bring him here? What do you think is going to happen?”

“I thought you’d want to see him.” She cleared her throat. “I wanted you to see him.”

“I didn’t want to come either,” Galin said.

“Shut up,” I said.

“Some Fey had scared a unicorn herd into a gully,” Soja continued. “Many of them broke legs when they fell. Bai helped me pull them out and set bones.”

“I didn’t want to.”

“He stayed with me until the worst-hurt had healed.”

“That was a bad idea too.”

“So what you’re telling me,” Galin said, throwing his plate so hard into the dry sink that it cracked down the middle, “is you brought me here to explain a mistake you made thirty-eight years ago. Mother, I’m busy! The Council depends on me for their research!”

“It wasn’t a mistake, you little twit,” I said.

“Then what was it?” he snarled. He had teeth like mine. “Do you think it’s pleasant being a half-breed? Do you think people take me seriously, with a face like this? Do you think I haven’t been the butt of jokes – “

“You’re my son,” I said. “So I know that you don’t give a unicorn turd for what people think of you.”

He folded his arms and gave me a measured look for calling his bluff. “Then what was it?”

I had been sitting underneath the wave of misery for almost a month now, battered by it, jabbed by loose memories and bewildered questions. “Orks aren’t really made for love, you know,” I said. “Bit like a donkey trying to fly. It just ends up in a bloody mess on the ground.”

“You’ll have to replace the plate,” Soja said quietly. “We are Liasar’s guests.”

“She’s going to make me knead her stupid clay for the stupid wheel,” I said to the wall.

“So you’ll stay here,” she said.

“I’m a field scout. I don’t have to report to my commanding officer for another year and a half.”

***

Galin refused to stay for more than a week. I wondered if he’d cover ground like an Ork or an Elf. He got on with Lia about as well as I did; she put him to work kneading bread dough and picking stickers out of some old pelts.

I was glad to see him go. Soja would go back to the Crossroads a week after he did. We did not speak very much. I was growing accustomed to being touched again. The whole business had been her fault. I had volunteered to help with the stupid unicorns (why?) but she had been the one to climb on top of me at night. It was easier to blame her when she was in front of me, shucking corn out of its husks and laughing when a squirrel snuck in the window and stole an onion. It was easier to remember when she was in front of me.

There’s no resolution for you here. Soja went back to the Crossroads. I have thirteen more months before I have to report in to my commanding officer, deep in the stone of the mountains. He is not the one who bit half my ear off; I was demoted from that legion after the first incident with Soja.

I hear from Galin more often than I do from Soja. He sends messenger ravens with parchments tied to their legs carrying news of politics and recriminations for being an awful father. He has threatened to have me named as a diplomatic liaison to the Elves. I don’t know if this is a threat he has the power to carry out. I don’t know if I will fight it if he does.

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